The day dawned to bright blue skies, low temperatures, and a light wind. A great day for a trip to Augusta, Georgia, for a Masters golf tournament practice round, or so I thought. I had planned our 8 a.m. departure from Nashville International Airport. The three of us — all experienced Lockheed C-130 aircrew members — would take the airplane, a Piper Panther Navajo Chieftain, down to Daniel Field and come home late that same afternoon.
After dropping off my kids at school, I headed for the airport. It was rush hour when I was driving through one of the many interstate construction zones and noticed the low-tire-pressure light illuminate. I quickly found myself with a flat tire. Forty-five minutes later, with the help of a roadside service vehicle, I was on my way again.
Fast-forward to the airport: The preflight was complete and we were anxious to get under way. As I left the FBO, I caught the heel of my new shoe on the doorjamb and ripped the heel off. When I stepped onto the airstair to get into the airplane, I thought, "I hope things don't happen in threes today."
During the engine start procedure the right engine's hydraulic pump did not work when I tested it. The pump operates the landing gear, and although it had been intermittent before, it had always started working when needed. Besides, we had other ways to get the gear down if necessary. So I did not give it any further thought.
We were cleared for a south departure and soon climbed through calm, clear skies toward Augusta. My friend, who is a C-130 flight engineer, an airframe and powerplant technician, and a pilot, occupied the right seat. We were discussing the tournament as we passed through 1,800 msl when I noticed the left engine's oil-filler-port cover pop open. I could have sworn that I had secured it during preflight. Just as I was contemplating this, my friend said, "I think the left engine is coming apart."
Both of us were wearing noise-canceling headsets and we could not hear a thing, but the left engine's instruments confirmed that the engine was tearing itself apart.
I quickly verified the failed engine and put the propeller into the feathered position. I contacted Nashville Approach and told it that we had an emergency and that we planned to land at Smyrna Airport in Tennessee. We were already set up on a perfect high downwind to land on Runway 32.
After what seemed like an eternity, the prop finally feathered, and I completed the before-landing checklist. We rolled onto an approximately 1.5-mile final to a beautiful long runway. With the landing assured I put the gear handle down.
This is when things went downhill fast. Nothing happened. The right engine's hydraulic pump was not working at all. I realized that the one thing I had forgotten during the descent checklist was the hydraulic pump check. I pulled out the handle for the emergency gear extension and told one of my friends to start pumping. We still had altitude and runway to work with.
But it quickly became obvious that the gear was not going to fully extend in time to land on the remaining runway. Finally, after we had passed over about two-thirds of the runway — facing a tree line at the end with one gear extended — I elected to go around. I planned to fly straight ahead and land on Runway 31 at Nashville. It was at this moment that the gear fully extended.
Even with maximum power on the good engine the airplane did not want to climb. I looked at my buddy next to me and told him that we were not going to clear the ridgeline in front of us. We needed to go out over the lake to the east. As I made the turn toward the lake, we were only about 75 feet above the water, but we had stopped descending.
I had flown floatplanes from this lake for several years, so I knew how much room we had to work with. I told my friend that he needed to pump the gear back up if we did not want to ditch. I placed the gear handle in the Up position and he began to pump with all his worth. Slowly the gear began to retract. It seemed a long time before the green gear-down indicator lights went out. The airspeed was at blue line and the airplane managed a meager 300-fpm climb. I knew that at this rate we could clear the trees at the other end of the lake. And we did, by about 25 feet, while we continued our climb.
The radio was still tuned to the Smyrna Tower frequency. I informed the Tower that I intended to climb straight ahead until I reached 2,000 feet msl and that I would let it know my intentions from there.
As I leveled the airplane at 2,000 feet, it quickly accelerated to 120 knots, and for the first time since the engine quit I felt my heart beat again. My other friend, a Boeing 767 captain, who was sitting in the back of the airplane, came to the front and pointed out the Lebanon Municipal Airport off the nose. I gave him a thumbs-up to let him know that was where I intended to go. I informed Smyrna Tower of my intentions, and it said it would contact the airport and let it know we were on the way. We ran the appropriate checklists and set up for a five-mile final. We pumped the gear down and made an uneventful landing. Takeoff to landing had been 22 minutes.
What had happened? The crankshaft had failed and caused the internal parts of the engine to come apart. A local mechanic pulled the cowling and revealed a softball-size hole in the top of the engine case. The case had cracked open completely and the force of the failure had torn the engine from one of its mounts. We were all very lucky.
I have run this flight through my mind a thousand times. I was extremely lucky to have had this happen in an area that I was familiar with and had flown in for more than 20 years. I learned a lot from this flight.
As aircraft commander, I should have left the airplane on the ground when the right engine's hydraulic pump did not pass the check at engine start. I believed that I had all my bases covered with redundant systems, and that the pump would start working, as it had in the past.
Also, I should have briefed my passengers on the emergency exits. We had logged a lot of time together, but not in the Navajo. This could have proven to be a tragic mistake, had we been forced to ditch in the lake.
One important thing I gained from this flight was to not give up when things go wrong: Continue to fly the airplane while evaluating all your options.
Do things really happen in threes? I don't know, but next time I have two events in a row I will stay home.
H. Edward Jackson III, AOPA 1243169, is a retired lieutenant colonel and C-130 command pilot with the Tennessee Air National Guard. Jackson had just completed his annual simulator training at Pan Am International Flight Academy's SimCom before this incident. A multiengine instrument-rated pilot, he owns a Piper Saratoga TC and has accumulated more than 6,500 flight hours during 30 years.
"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts may be submitted via e-mail to [email protected] or sent to Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.